The dichotomy of Joe Paterno's legacy

John Jeansonne

Newsday columnist John Jeansonne. John Jeansonne

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since

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Though Joe Paterno's reputation was that of a humble man with sincere efforts to emphasize academics in the greedy swamp of big-time college football, the grandiosity of what he became at Penn State University cannot be ignored in the tragic end of his career and his death just 74 days later.

He lived in a modest home a few blocks from the Penn State campus, kept his telephone number listed publicly and came to be known in his later years by the fatherly title of "JoePa." But his elevation to sainted status -- impossible to live up to -- surely came into play when the Penn State brand was threatened by the child sex-abuse scandal involving his long-time assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. And Paterno, the most powerful man in State College, Pa. (and likely all of Pennsylvania), failed to do more about the awful alleged transgressions on his watch.

During Paterno's tenure as head coach, which began in 1966, six expansions more than doubled the football stadium's capacity to the current 107,282, second-largest in the nation. For years, life-sized cardboard cutouts of Paterno -- "Stand-Up Joes" -- have been sold in State College, and a campus creamery sells "Peachy Paterno" ice cream. In 2011, a statue of Paterno was erected outside the stadium, revering him as "Educator, Coach, Humanitarian."

He preached fealty over individual acclaim -- thus, the refusal to have players' names on the backs of their plain blue or white jerseys -- yet, when university officials went to Paterno's home in 2004 to suggest that it was time for him to retire -- probably for the wrong reasons (his teams were losing too much) -- he pulled rank, telling them to "get off my backside." When the news broke in early November of Sandusky's indictment on more than 50 counts of sexually abusing young boys, triggering speculation over whether Paterno would keep his job, Paterno issued a statement instructing the board of trustees that it "should not spend a single minute discussing my status."

The sudden end of his otherwise eminent career -- no coach produced more victories (409) at college football's top level nor enjoyed more praise for his "success with honor" motto -- triggered a Vesuvian eruption of emotion, spewing anger, confusion, disappointment and sadness in the Penn State community that so revered him.

While countless students, fans and alumni rallied to Paterno's defense, arguing that, at the least, he should have been allowed, with two games remaining, to finish his 46th season as head coach, many others supported the university trustees' concern that Paterno had failed to follow-up on reports of a specific 2002 Sandusky assault at the school's football facilities and that Paterno and the football program were becoming too powerful to rein in.

There is no evidence that Paterno's deep feelings for Penn State -- and more than $4 million donated to university projects -- were not genuine. Nor that he wasn't the primary source of Penn State's major leap in visibility from the time he arrived in State College, as a 23-year-old assistant to new head coach Rip Engle in 1950. What he called a "hick town" shortly after he signed on with Engle benefitted enormously from Penn State's football success.

Paterno brought Penn State hundreds of millions of dollars with his two national championships, five unbeaten seasons and admission into the lucrative Big Ten Conference. He coached 79 first-team All-Americans and 33 NFL first-round draft choices. The visibility that his football teams brought to Happy Valley factored into growing Penn State as a prominent academic institution.

But the Sandusky case that ultimately shredded Paterno's legacy has come to reflect snowballing concerns that big-time college football, through the power of its astounding riches, steadily chips away at the academic souls of universities. Paterno himself had espoused a balance -- he called it his "Grand Experiment" -- that would not allow athletic preference over education.

But there were those 107,000-plus football crowds, and Paterno's resulting celebrity, symbolized by that Paterno statue. In Tuesday's Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News, an op-ed piece by Jennifer Storm, author of several books on victimization and recovery, appeared under the headline, "If we put people like Joe Paterno on a pedestal, there is only one way to go."